Challenges ahead include school-closing recommendation
Theresa Battle has been busy checking boxes in her opening days as superintendent of Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191.
She joined Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, Police Chief Tanya Schwartz and others for a July 8 “Today” show interview about the city’s abundance of female leaders.
July 12 included a visit to Burnsville High School, her eighth school visit, and coffee with Principal Dave Helke at Jo Jo’s Rise & Wine in the Heart of the City.
Battle has visited all three schools in Savage, getting a crash course in local history from Marion W. Savage Elementary Principal Renee Brandner.
“And Dan Patch — I had no idea,” Battle said, referring to the early 20th century superstar pacing horse stabled in Savage by owner Marion W. Savage. “We all know Dan Patch from the State Fair, and that’s us! I’m very thrilled to be a part of all three communities.”
Even before her official July 1 start date, the former St. Paul school administrator launched a 100-day plan that included consultation with outgoing Superintendent Cindy Amoroso, who retired.
Battle’s acclimation period has included some serious business around school closings. The School Board received a consultant’s report July 8 recommending that after 15 years of declining enrollment and with more ahead, the district close two elementary schools and one middle school after the 2019-20 school year. Boundary changes would accompany the closings.
“You’re not just talking bricks and mortar,” Battle said in a July 12 interview. “You’re talking children and families and memories, so that’s the first approach. ... We just received this, so we’re still trying to make sense of it. Part of my listening and connecting is that information-gathering.”
Raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Battle began her career in 1985 as a junior high teacher in Hampton, Virginia.
She worked for the St. Paul Public Schools for 28 years over two tenures, serving as a classroom teacher; special education facilitator; assistant principal; assistant director for curriculum, development and instruction; principal; and assistant superintendent. Battle has also been an assistant superintendent in Minneapolis and interim assistant superintendent in Osseo.
She left St. Paul as an assistant superintendent in charge of 14 secondary schools.
“Very similar in size to Burnsville-Eagan-Savage,” Battle said.
She graduated from Hampton University with a bachelor of science in special education and received her doctorate of education from the University of Minnesota. Outside of work, the Maplewood resident is a member of St. Peter Claver Church, serves on the Greater Twin Cities YMCA Mission Impact board, is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and supports the PROCEED annual tour of historically black colleges and universities.
“Dr. Battle is bringing a breadth and depth of knowledge along with a love of students,” Wendy Drugge, president of teachers union the Burnsville Education Association, said in an email. “We are very much looking forward to her leadership and partnering with her.”
The final phase of her 100-day plan is leading, Battle said.
“Because we need to get ready for the 8,300 students returning after Labor Day,” she said. “We have 1,300 staff returning the week of Aug. 26.”
Battle said she has “seven bosses now,” referring to the School Board members who signed her to a three-year contract.
“But I will still be connected to students, because that’s the focus of our work,” she said. “Our core business is learning and teaching. ... Right now, at least two days a week, I will be visiting schools. And I hope what I’ve started this week and will continue with next week, visiting with every principal and getting out to every school, will be the model for the rest of the year.”
For an academic snapshot, Battle pointed to the district’s 2017-18 scorecard on Minnesota’s Worlds Best Workforce metrics.
“We need more of our students ready for kindergarten,” she said, noting that the percentage dropped from 41.6 percent in 2016-17 to 38.1 percent in 2017-18.
District results on the ACT college entrance exam are “pretty similar to the state,” Battle said. The 2017 Burnsville High School graduate rate of students attending all four years is “good” at 85.5 percent, she said.
“However, you have to look at the story behind the numbers and disaggregate” to find and target achievement gaps between subgroups, Battle said.
“Unfortunately, on too many of the metrics, our black students are not achieving as we know they should. You have to understand, sometimes the assessments don’t always show the brilliance of our kids. That’s why we have to look at multiple assessments.”
The district’s continued net outflow of students was noted in the board-commissioned report by consultant Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors. People interviewed for the report “expressed that a combination of the reputation of the school district’s middle schools and high school and changing demographics of the communities/student population” have exacerbated the exodus.
“Humans build systems that are imperfect,” Battle said. “I’m not sure why people think that the things we built are going to be perfect when we’re not perfect. But it’s really, What are you going to do about it? How do you engage people?”
She said she understands that “perception is reality.”
“We need to keep giving information and have others share our story, especially our students,” Battle said, adding that she hopes the district’s youth will be “better off when I leave than when I started. That’s my goal. You always want to touch people.”